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Thursday, 3 January, 2002, 15:11 GMT
'I battled the Sydney bushfires'
NSW fires started on Christmas Day
Thousands have been evacuated since Christmas Day
While new recruit Ritchie Braga fought the fires arcing around Sydney, his own family had to be evacuated as the flames advanced. He tells his story in our weekly Real Time series.

I was first called out on Christmas Day at about midday to fight fires at the foot of the Blue Mountains on the outskirts of Sydney.

New South Wales ablaze
More than 100 fires destroyed 160 homes and bush-land twice the area of greater London
That was a huge day - we saved quite a few houses, but quite a few were lost also.

We didn't eat until 9 o'clock that night, when we got a feed of two-minute noodles. As it was Christmas Day, there weren't many stores open to get food from. We were all hungry and extremely tired.

Click here for a map of the fires threatening Sydney

I was finally released at about 1.30am, yet I couldn't get home because the area near my house in Scarborough [about 6km from Sydney] was also on fire. I had to stay with my sister that night.

Taking a rest on the road
Fire-fighters are working around the clock
I was back at work at 11am on Boxing Day, and all that day I couldn't contact my wife Andrea. She and our four children had been evacuated the day before when the fires had come within several hundred metres of our house.

I actually got quite upset that morning before we were deployed - I wanted to find my family, but I also knew I wouldn't be able to get through the road blocks.

So I felt quite useless. I'd made a lot of effort to contact the places they might have been evacuated to, yet they had heard nothing of my family. So yeah, I was kind of worried and it showed - all my workmates knew I was concerned.


That evening we didn't finish until 2am and we were evacuated an hour after we got to sleep

She finally rang me late on Boxing Day while I was still at work.

I'd left her a message with a fiery mate's mobile number, and he came rushing through the bush-land shouting, 'Rick, Rick, your wife'. She didn't realise such a fuss had been made, that the police had actually come up here and looked for her.

Flee approaching flames

We didn't finish until 2am, so it was another huge day.

The moon glows orange from the smoke in NZ
Smoke fills the sky as far away as New Zealand
I still couldn't get home so stayed with another fiery mate of mine and we were evacuated an hour after we got to sleep. The fire was very close, about 75m from the house and huge flames.

I was so tired I didn't wake up when the police came knocking on the door. I woke up to him kicking me and saying, 'How did you sleep through that?'

I've pretty much been working right through since then, and they've been very, very full-on days. On New Year's Day I wasn't meant to be on call but when they rang at 11.30am, I knew I wanted to give a hand again.

Twisted firestarters

I live between the sea and the escarpment, on a strip of land just 250m wide near Wollongong, and the area around my house is still on fire. I wake up to smoke and I go to sleep with smoke.


My little girl doesn't understand why people would light these fires when it makes others so miserable

Many of these fires have been attributed to arson. My wife told me when I got home tonight - late again - that our little girl has been watching the news and saying, 'Why would people want to do this to other people?'

She doesn't understand why people would light these fires when it makes others so miserable.

You're not going to believe this, but I've been a fire-fighter for a very short period. Many of the guys fighting these fires are still in training college, with one week to go before we graduate.

Fire in NSW
Many of the fire-fighters are new recruits
I'm going to love being a fire-fighter. I can't think of a more satisfying job because of exactly what's happened over the past 10 days - I get to serve the community and the community appreciates it.

The reaction has been amazing - people can't do enough for us. I've never seen anything like it before. I see signs all over the place that say: 'Thank you fire brigade', 'Thank you emergency services, we love you' or 'You're angels from heaven'.

It's an unbelievable feeling seeing that sort of thing when you're tired. All of us have been touched by it.


Real Time gives people a chance to tell their own stories in their own words. If you've got something to say, click here.

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Fire-fighter Ritchie Braga
"People can't do enough for us"


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03 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
02 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
29 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
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